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Specially Level With Me, Adam Foster - Part One

Digging Deeper

In this very special installment of "Level With Me", Robert Yang speaks with former celebrity modder / current Valve level designer Adam Foster about his work and process. In part 1, we cover his early Half-Life 1 mods, Valve's / his approach to storytelling, and his work on the Portal 2 announcement ARG.

Robert Yang: I want to talk about your first mod, Someplace Else. It's a Xen level without any jumping puzzles. What makes a Xen level a “Xen level” to you?

Adam Foster: Being set in Xen, of course!

RY: Well... I'd argue the jumping puzzles in Xen were important for making that world plausible? Wouldn't a “real” alien architecture be uncomfortable for a human to navigate?

AF: The aliens behind the architecture in Someplace Else must have hated jumping puzzles as well - it's my only explanation! It's pretty lucky they were also approximately human-sized, with a requirement for flat surfaces to walk on and a desire to build fancy science-fiction corridors with conveniently few polygons to render. There's always that urge to build something truly alien, but there have to be concessions to navigability, understanding and gameplay.

I tend to start with a setting then hope everything else will steadily fall into place. In the case of Someplace Else, it had to be all-alien enemies, with human-oriented supplies being limited to particular cache points, and free range with the layout and gameplay capabilities of whatever machinery might lie within the map. Huge, gravity-nullifying shaft? That makes sense. Giant teleporter? Yup. Funny-looking aliens beaming themselves into convenient locations? Indeed. Jumping puzzles? No way!

If the setting isn't coming up with sufficiently interesting gameplay or storytelling opportunities, then tweak it, recrystallise and see what new patterns form.

RY: By the way, I love how you spawn the player in the middle of a hallway. Why let the player go the "wrong way"? 

AF: I think it's something to do with liking the idea of getting the player into combat situations where running away is the most sensible thing to do. Pick up a crowbar, turn around and run into some vortigaunts intent on electrocuting you from a distance? Turn back, run, and conveniently head in the direction of some more effective weaponry...

RY: It kind of works like a gate, based on combat difficulty. Except the "key" is a shotgun. Pretty subtle stuff. More interesting than a locked door.

AF: There's something similar at the beginning of the first map in MINERVA. Land on a beach, under fire from Combine soldiers - the most sensible option is, once again, to run away...

RY: Oh yeah, both have an omnipresent cybernetic entity who texts the player over a dial-up modem built into the HEV suit. (For more on MINERVA, check out this RPS interview with Foster from about 5 years ago.) How did that idea come about?

AF: Many years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and CRT monitors broke the backs of students across the land, I was building a series of single-player maps for Quake. I got as far as two maps in - the nihilistic setting being a future Earth where civilisation failed purely by itself, rather than through any evil overlord's plans.

Then, a game called Half-Life was released.

A couple of months later, having played the Half-Life demo, I got round to buying the full game. And emboldened by my previous work with Worldcraft for Quake, built my first Half-Life map that very day. The 'Xeno' textures were decidedly mysterious.

I had grand ideas for another single-player campaign called 'Parallax', telling the story of another scientist caught up in Black Mesa's resonance cascade. At some point I read about Bungie's Marathon series, and caught the plot-via-text bug. Minerva herself was initially inspired by the then-mysterious Cortana Letters, then she promptly went off in entirely her own direction. (Most important plot-point? She's not an AI!)

Parallax proved too weighty a project to finish, as did a lighter-weight spin-off for Opposing Force. But the messaging system remained, and proved to be a very useful addition to Someplace Else, a one-off map for the gloriously ridiculous Project Quantum Leap - a collaborative map-pack from inhabitants of the sadly missed Valve ERC forums.

MINERVA came about when learning to build maps for Half-Life 2, starting with an island simply because I wanted to build an island. I dusted off some old plot-points, located the all-important 'message.wav', poked away at the chapter titles system, and Minerva herself was reborn. I stuck it on the internets, it got downloaded a ridiculous number of times, I kept adding to it, Valve took an interest...

Why 'MINERVA'? While working on a big Half-Life mod called Nightwatch and having just read Cryptonomicon, I had an idea for a mysterious overlord organisation named MINERVA. I promptly dumped everything except the name, this time it's a horrendous acronym for a 1970s scientific project into wormhole creation, then had the main character name herself after it...

RY: We miss Minerva dearly. Where is she now? Will we ever see her again?

AF: When I last heard from her, she was fiddling around with some archaic, alien technology on a near-inaccessible supersymmetric triplet of Earth. I suspect her intention was to destroy an entire third of a universe, rather than let the Combine take control of whatever weaponry had been left lying around. Monstrously large-scale destruction? It's kind of her thing, really.

Although there certainly will be some kind of final, all-problems-fixed super-dandy release of Metastasis, sooner rather than later...

RY: Speaking of Minerva – did you really write the text on this page of the Portal 2 comic? Your fans noted its rosy purple-colored Minervan prose and fascination with cancer. [MINERVA has chapters called Metastasis and Carcinogenesis.]

AF: Heh. That's Ted Kosmatka. I saw that in the final version, and thought THAT'S SO VERY ME. It's pretty much exactly the point we were trying to get across in Portal 2's environments - but the text itself, I can't claim any credit!

RY: Generally, what do you think is the role of text in games like Half-Life and Portal?

AF: In the game worlds themselves, mainly just vague flavour. Numbers suggesting multiples of things seen in the environments, vague descriptions of facilities, ominous safety warnings. Portal 2 probably went the furthest with signs, with some darkly humorous efforts distributed through the deeper underground areas.

Something Valve tends not to do is localise any in-world text, so it's best not to impart some vital plot-points via that text. Instead, environmental storytelling can end being much more subtle and expansive. But telling jokes via signs? Still acceptable!

RY: Right. But if all your plot points are character-based, that means you have to re-record voice over and re-animate sequences whenever you tweak the plot. And then you won't know if something fails until you've put a lot of time and work into it. Am I assuming correctly – is it that expensive? And if so, doesn't that suck?

AF: Here's the secret: temporary voice-work. It was difficult not to get attached to some of the placeholder audio in Portal 2 - luckily the writers found some actual voices which were even better. Even before that, there'd be placeholders for the placeholder audio - with brief on-screen messages indicating relevant plot developments.

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At one point we had some text indicating something like 'imagine incredible vista here'. One of the playtesters rated it as a high-point.

RY: You should've kept that somehow!

AF: The second secret is - record far too much audio! MINERVA's dialogue was text-only less from an artistic point of view, more from a I-couldn't-possibly-find-someone-to-provide-a-voice-that-did-the-character-justice point of view. In my head, it's spoken dialogue.

RY: Speaking of voices in your head... about the Portal 2 announcement ARG. What attracts you to ARGs, anyway?

AF: I've always been utterly obsessed with the literary idea of the false document. To the extent that any creative writing exercise at primary school would include fake newspaper cuttings (authentically aged in stale tea), maps (complete with contour lines and imaginary placenames) and falsified cover quotes from actual scientists on the discovery of the Loch Ness monster... To me, the Alternate Reality Game is fun for being a work of interactive fiction.

(for more Minerva files, see Mr. Foster's blog.)

RY: Do you play much interactive fiction? You'd like Emily Short's Galatea. It's about a cybernetic woman who has a low opinion of the player.

AF: Many years ago, my dad was clearing out some floppy disks at work. One of them had some utterly prehistoric PC games on it, the most important being a copy of Infocom's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy game. I had no idea as to the provenance of the game, this being the pre-internet era, but getting repeatedly stuck on the Babelfish dispenser puzzle was pretty much my definitive interactive fiction experience. Forget game characters having a low opinion of the player - this was an entire game with a low opinion of the player!

I need to play more recent stuff. The mini-adventure in Frog Fractions reminded me how painfully wonderful interactive fiction could be. Actually, while on the subject of Frog Fractions - I loved the way a vast world was hidden behind a simple facade. Poke at a flimsy wall too hard, and it collapses to reveal a labyrinth of tunnels for exploration. You may note that the original MINERVA development blog was only accessible by a near-hidden link in tiny text - and the Portal 2 announcement ARG kicked off with some radios making funny squeaky noises. It's less about the puzzle itself, more the world surrounding the puzzle.

RY: Have you heard of Sleep No More? It's very “worldy”, maybe even worldful.

AF: It sounds vaguely familiar - I think I read about it on someone's blog?

RY: It's a performance of Macbeth inside a massive warehouse turned into an abstract haunted house with dozens of rooms, and dancers rove around, and you can follow them or walk around and open every drawer or box, and examine every detail and document.

AF: At one point, MINERVA was going to have a non-violent offshoot, with the player as a Civil Protection officer exploring some damp, story-filled city ruins where something important had happened. It never got beyond the picture in my head, but it's part of my love for thoroughly imagined game worlds. I'm the one who'll be skimming through in-game books and notes looking for interesting snippets, reading graffiti and looking at detritus, building up a mental model of the world.

Give me a real-world place and I'll do something similar. Over the weekend I was exploring an old Seattle telephone exchange that had been turned into a museum. So much of the equipment still had extra labels stuck on it, indicating procedures and who to call if a particular system broke or needed restarting, while plans, diagrams, papers and records were stacked around... Everything had a story.

(photo by Adam Foster)

RY: But how did the ARG come about? Did you just wheel your desk over to the "ARG room" at Valve and start researching stenography?

AF: The announcement ARG grew pretty organically. We were busy tidying up media for Game Informer, when someone had the idea of some kind of super-fan counterpoint to the articles in the magazine. I mentioned I'd done some weird, ARG-ish puzzle for when I'd announced I'd got a job at Valve (involving a fake Polish numbers station, no less) and how that had gone pretty well, and one thing led to another.

I've got a tendency to find articles on obscure but interesting subjects, then leap straight in. Wikipedia is probably one of my favourite things ever, while before that I'd usually find some weighty reference tome and begin absorbing it. At one point things were going to be much more complicated, with the BBS being much more interactive, hooking into Steam systems for unlocking further appearances in the game. Valve was busy moving offices at the time, so many of the more awkward features got dropped before any real implementation work got done - and which is also why the BBS ended up living in my flat, connected up to a phone socket in my kitchen.

I saw various speculation on forums that we had a whole bank of servers running in a datacentre somewhere. Um, no - one PC running Debian, an old modem, and a private phone line!

RY: But I still feel like I could never run an ARG. I don't know how to write my own fake OS for a dial-in BBS running on an Amiga with a 128-bit encryption key encrypted in 20 different MP3s, etc.

AF: Amiga? Get out. Atari ST forever! (Ahem...) It goes back to the work-of-interactive-fiction thing. With the Portal 2 announcement stuff, the idea was of someone using Aperture systems to broadcast a message out under the nose of some malevolent, all-observing AI, resulting in misuse of existing facilities and protocols. Number-marked office supplies and equipment placed in front of security cameras to give the encoded phone number of a forgotten Aperture backup computer, constantly looping through choice bits of data.

The trick is to design a near-plausible architectural system, then block some of the most obvious routes into it. Surprisingly blatant clues are provided for the side-routes - strings which provided vital bits of information when put into Google.

I've had a tendency to do very silly things with computers for a long time. At university I resurrected an ancient combination of security camera, Watford Electronics video digitiser, BBC Micro, character-dropping and ethernet-connected HP UNIX box. There's been the occasional scanner out of Lego, live-TV-to-telnet converter, potato-monitoring Arduino webcam, internet-connected Atari ST... Right now I'm turning a Raspberry Pi into an elegantly ridiculous BBC Radio Four-oriented internet radio.

If there's some antiquated way of doing something, I've probably tried it. Which proved amazingly useful when designing the real-world aspects of the ARG. 1987-vintage modem hooked up to a modern(-ish) PC, running BBS software looping through ANSI-art conversions of images? Easy!

RY: Yeah, sure. So simple.

AF: So much of it is from trawling through Wikipedia, following up interesting leads. The slow-scan television stuff was found that way, for instance - a couple of hours research into encoding information into audio turned up this wonderful system used by ham radio enthusiasts. Best of all, it's mostly analogue - so the encoded sound sounds amazing, and gives lovely-looking visual distortion when a sound engineer goes to town mangling it. And someone doing research into weird-sounding, information-containing audio will turn up SSTV sooner or later.

I wasn't involved in the Portal 2 launch stuff - I was incredibly busy helping finish Portal 2 itself around that time - but I felt the puzzles there were less successful, because they were more arbitrary puzzles without the semi-plausible real-world background. But the sheer weight of other stuff more than made up for it - it was great seeing so many people enthusiastic about the ARG and the imminent game release.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where we cover more of Mr. Foster's work on Portal 2, game architecture, and how to design for players.

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